Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Charting ‘a course out of hell’

The Vienna conference on Syria is a threshold for the region as a whole, whether it succeeds in laying the grounds for solutions, or disintegrates and sows the seeds of further conflict, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

Before leaving Washington for Vienna to attend the international conference on the Syrian crisis, US Secretary of State John Kerry likened the challenge to resolving that conflict to a struggle to “chart a course out of hell.”

I do not know what the situation will be like by the time this article appears in print, after the conference convenes. But there can be no doubt that the meeting in Vienna will become a landmark cited by historians when they chronicle what happened in Syria in the second decade of the 21st century.

The Vienna conference is an international conference attended by regional states involved in the Syrian crises, most notably Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Iraq, and by key players in the international order, namely Russia, the US, France and the EU.

Preparations for the assembly were made during a quadrilateral meeting between the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. These four countries represent the core of the Vienna conference and its sponsors. Most likely, they have laid out the strategic dimensions and ruling principles of the talks.

But perhaps the most pressing question at the moment is, why now. Why are all these parties coming together to “chart a course out of hell” when that hell has been raging for years, claiming 250,000 lives, 1,100,000 wounded and 11 million refugees and displaced persons?

There are a number of instrumental factors here. First, the flow of refugees has moved beyond the countries bordering Syria — Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey — and specifically toward European countries. In a sense, the ceaseless European nightmare of being inundated by peoples from the poor and culturally different countries of the south has become a reality.

It is emanating from Syria and Libya, and the Asian and African continents beyond them. Not many in Europe were prepared to receive such huge numbers of refugees, especially at a time when the continent is struggling to recover from its own internal crises, such as the Greek economic crisis.

Second, the Western-Iranian nuclear agreement posed an important hypothesis that needed testing. This hypothesis can be couched in the following question: Was the deal intended to prevent Iran from producing a nuclear weapon while freeing its hand to dominate Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and remain a constant thorn in the side of the entire region all the way down to Yemen, or was it a purely nuclear deal that offered Iran a chance to play a moderate role in the region?

Or, to put it more briefly, can Iran become a part of the solution to regional problems rather than being the source of these problems?

Third, the sudden direct Russian military intervention in Syria has greatly altered the Middle Eastern chess game. Russia has not had such a major military presence in the region since the time before Sadat expelled the Russians from Egypt in 1972.

The Russian intervention follows a period when Obama’s strategy of not intervening directly created a terrorist monster that threatens not only the Middle East but also the Caucasus and Europe.

Fourth, the material and moral costs of the Syrian crisis have grown too heavy for the parties involved, especially given that it is not the only crisis in the region, even if it is the most severe.

Certainly, there are other factors that could be added to the above. But it is clear that the humanitarian plight of the refugees has come into contact with the global media revolution that has given audio-visual output political and strategic impacts that cannot be ignored.

It is also clear that something new connected with Iran’s true intentions has piggybacked on the Iranian-Western nuclear agreement. In addition, it is true that Moscow has become the new compass point for regional parties, if not for military coordination — as is the case with Israel and Jordan — then for attempts to search for a way out from a crisis that has dragged on for too long.

All the new “constants” above have created a framework or a new environment for action made possible by a consensus over priorities, the highest priority being given to the elimination of the Islamic State (IS) group and its “caliphate” (which has been the goal of the international and regional coalition that launched military operations against it) and some of its branches (which has been Egypt’s goal).

This unity of purpose is, at the very least, conducive to closer coordination but, perhaps, it could also lead to a comprehensive strategy for dealing with that terrorist organisation and its branches, not just in Syria but also throughout the region as a whole.

This aim might be overly ambitious, as it could be hampered by the profound differences between the parties meeting in Vienna. However, there remain less ambitious aims related to the humanitarian response to the crisis, which could take the form of creating and protecting safe zones, or facilitating relief and rescue operations.

On such purposes the parties involved in the Syrian crisis stand on the same side and will remain so as long as the manner in which these goals are pursued does not lead to any particular political advantages to one party at the expense of another.

 But there is another aim that no one has mentioned, at least so far; namely, that it will not be possible to get Russia out of the Levant militarily until the Syrian crisis is over. This is what Moscow says and it is what the other parties want.

As for the gulf between the major parties, it centres on the role played by the Baathist regime during the interim phase, which envisions a transitional government to oversee the drafting of a new national charter or constitution, elections of popular representatives and presidential elections.

At the heart of the dispute, and the reason why the crisis has reached this point to begin with, is Bashar Al-Assad. Russia and Iran have insisted that Al-Assad’s heavy hand should remain during the interim phase. This can have only one meaning, which is that the phase will not be a transition forward but rather a reversion to the status quo before the crisis.

Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US are adamant that Bashar and his regime must go: a party responsible for murdering a quarter of a million Syrians cannot participate in the solution. This gap narrowed somewhat when Moscow indicated that it is prepared to accept a compromise formula that allows Bashar to remain, but without exercising a controlling role over the process of transferring power.

There are many details involved, and all require great amounts of political and diplomatic acumen. In all events, the type of negotiations that are taking place in Vienna test our intentions and credibility. Most likely, the talks will begin in the common ground between the diverse parties.

If so, the parties’ shared desire to eliminate the IS danger will lead them to a different place than where they are now. Perhaps, for example, Iran will find an opportunity to prove that it can play a positive role in a region.

Optimists will regard the Vienna conference not only as the beginning of a settlement to the Syrian crisis but also, perhaps, as the beginning of the resolution of other crises in the region, including the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Pessimists will see the meeting as the moment just before all the parties remove their gloves and lock horns in yet another round of conflict, for which the people of the region will pay the price.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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